Friday, September 23, 2016
Today's First Chapter Spotlight is on Sharon Coady's MELANIE'S CHRISTMAS GIFT, just one of twelve brand-new stories in Christmas Pets & Kisses. This 12 book boxed set releases October 11th!
Melanie’s Christmas Gift
Copyright 2016, Author
The day of the wedding finally arrived with everything moving smoothly, and everyone going about their business except Anne, who missed Melanie being underfoot. Kyle insisted on taking her to his house last night, saying he didn’t want to tempt fate. To top it off, Kyle’s mother had insisted on coming over to help Anne get ready. She didn’t know his mother and hadn’t seen her in years.
Maybe wanting to get married so quickly wasn’t such a good idea after all. It had been her idea to have the wedding quickly and try for a baby right away. Having another great-grandchild was all Pop could talk about.
She made her way into the kitchen to find Pop standing by the coffee pot, waiting for it to finish brewing. “Morning, Pop.” She kissed him on the cheek. “You ready for the big day?”
“Yep, I’m ready. Question is, are you?” His eyes crinkled as his grin spread over his mouth.
“Yes, I am. I’m so excited. I can’t believe the day is finally here. I’m glad you’re going to walk me down the aisle. I know you’re not crazy about being around so many people, but it means a lot to me.” Anne grabbed a cup from the cabinet and poured hot water from the tea kettle into her cup, before taking a tea bag from the covered container.
He turned and held his arms out. “You’re the only granddaughter I have. I hate getting dressed up and going to a church, but I’ve waited a long time for this day. Like I’ve said before, I’m getting a grandson-in-law and a great granddaughter today. Who wouldn’t be happy? I love you, girl.”
She moved into his warm arms and gave him a big hug. “I love you, too. We’re both lucky. I feel like she’s my little girl, even though I didn’t give birth to her. How lucky can I get?” She sighed. “I’m just a little worried.”
Pop pushed her back and looked into her eyes. “What are you worried about?”
“Nothing is stupid. Tell me,” he ordered sternly.
“What if her mother shows up after all these years? Will she still want me to be her mommy?” Anne lowered her eyes as she felt the heat from the blush spread over her face.
“Well now, that’s not a stupid thought. But she left that little girl years ago. Why would you think she’d show up out of the blue?” He placed his hand under her chin, gently lifting her head so he could look into her eyes.
“I don’t know. The thought has prayed on my mind the last few days. I’m worried if she comes back, Melanie will want her and not me. Oh, I sound so selfish, don’t I?” She pulled her teabag from the water and wrapped the string around the spoon, giving it a little squeeze before placing the teabag on her saucer.
“Nope, you sound like a stepparent that is worried about a birth mother. I’ll bet they have some sort of group for this.” The corners of his mouth turned up.
“You watch too much reality TV.” She couldn’t help but giggle at his comment. “We need to leave by eleven. Kyle is coming by to pick you up. It really means the world to me that you’re giving me away.” Anne felt she couldn’t express enough how much it did mean, and she wanted him to know it.
“Oh, I’m not giving you away, I’m sharing,” Pop huffed as he filled his coffee cup. “Stupid words, giving away. You don’t give someone away,” he mumbled under his breath.
“Don’t get worked up, it’s just a silly saying.”
“I’m not worked up, I’m just saying it seems like a dumb thing to say. Are you making me my oatmeal this morning?” he grumbled again.
“Yep. Sit down and let me get it for you.” She kissed his cheek. She measured the water into the pot, added the long-cooking oatmeal, and turned on the burner.
“I’m happy you’re marrying Kyle. He’s a good man, and that little girl is so darn cute. Gram would have loved her.”
Anne smiled. “I know she would have.” She missed her gram so much; the pain of losing her didn’t seem to lessen as the time went on. Even while she and Melanie had been shopping for their dresses, she wished her gram had been there to help her choose hers. “She loved Kyle. This would have made her very happy.” She stirred the oatmeal as it slowly bubbled.
He took his cup and shuffled to the table, finally sitting down. “I’m hungry. Are you going to talk or fix my breakfast?” His eyes twinkled as his mouth turned up in a crooked grin. Mavy appeared from under the table and sprung into his lap. She leaned up against his belly and purred.
“Stop being a rascal. You know I’m making it for you.” She sighed as she spooned the oatmeal into his favorite bowl. “I think I’m a bit nervous, too nervous to eat.” Her stomach was doing flip-flops this morning.
“What are you nervous for? Not like you haven’t been planning for this day. What’s got you so jumpy?”
“I haven’t met some of the people Kyle’s mother invited. It turns out he has a rather large family. We’d planned on a small wedding, and she sort of changed that. I guess it’s making me nervous. It’s just been you and me for a long time now.” She wrung her hands before tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.
“Hey, they’re going to love you. Me, I’m not so sure. I know I can be a bit gruff sometimes and that makes me hard to like. You and your gram saw through that. I guess Kyle and Melanie do, too.”
Anne set his bowl of oatmeal down in front of him and ran her hand over Mavy’s soft fur. “Anyone who takes the time to get to know you sees through it. If they don’t like you, well that’s just too bad.” She leaned down and kissed his cheek. “I’m going to go take a shower. Do you need anything else?”
“Nope. I’ll eat this and start getting myself ready, you have to be there at eleven, but Kyle said he would pick me up about nine. I guess we have to get to the church to make sure everything is set up right. He said he needed my keen eyes. I think he just wanted to get me out of your way.” He snickered.
“That’s not true. Kyle likes spending time with you, and you are not in my way. Well, having a couple of strange women in the house, fussing over me and helping me get ready, might get in your way. I’ll see you later, Pop.” Anne hurried into the bathroom and started the shower. I’m worried they’ll get in my way.
She finished her shower and dried her hair. Looking at her reflection in the mirror, Anne couldn’t believe how happy she looked; her expression was radiant. Kyle and Melanie had made such a difference in both her and Pop’s lives. I hope I get pregnant right away. She and Kyle had talked it over, and he’d agreed with her they needed to have a baby quickly. Pop was doing okay, but Anne could see he was getting weaker. She wanted to give him this one last wish. He missed Gram so much, and at times, she thought the grief overwhelmed him. She knew he tried to hide it, but his eyes always gave him away.
Just as she finished putting on her lotion and big, fluffy robe, the doorbell rang. Anne hurried out to find Pop opening the door. “Come on in. How are you this morning? I’m Anne’s grandfather, Walter, but everyone calls me Pop.” His eyes sparkled as his mouth turned up in a forced grin. “Kyle, good to see you.”
It tickled her that he was trying his best to smile and welcome everyone into their home. Pop never was one who liked crowds, especially crowds that he didn’t know coming into his home. He could be a downright cranky beast at times, so this was a pleasant surprise, and she felt her anxiety lessen.
Once the women were introduced, Kyle took Pop’s suit bag off the closet door as Pop headed for the door. “Just a moment, son.” Pop turned and glanced at Anne. “I love you, girl. See you at the wedding.” He lifted his hand and waved.
Tears welled in her eyes as she waved back. “I love you too, Pop.” Before she had time to think any further, the women surrounded her, chatting about her hair, her beautiful skin… Anne smiled and nodded, but she let her mind wander, as their chatter became nothing but background noise. She thought back to the day that she and Melanie had gone dress shopping.
Melanie had insisted on having a pink dress since it was her favorite color. Lucky for her, they had found a beautiful, pale pink dress with a chiffon skirt at the first children’s department they visited. The waist was cinched with a deeper pink ribbon tie and a silk pink flower. It was something Melanie would be able to wear again. She had been so excited; she kept spinning this way and that, looking at her reflection in the mirror. Anne remembered how she had exclaimed, “This one is perfect. I think my daddy will love it.” She had spun around again, a big smile turning her mouth up so far that her little dimples showed. “Can I have it, Mommy?”
When Anne had told her she also thought it was perfect, Melanie was so excited she kept twirling around and around in circles. She had wanted to wear it home and almost cried when Anne told her they had to pick their dresses up later.
But once Anne explained that they had to go get their shoes and stockings, as well as trying to figure out what to do about the jewelry, she had settled down somewhat. She had further explained to the little one that they still had to find a basket so she could carry the rose petals. “So you see, we have a lot more to do before we pick our dresses up and head home.”
This had appeased her and as they made their way to the shoe store, she’d chatted nonstop. “This is so much fun. I’m so glad you and Daddy will get married at that special church. I can’t wait to be the flower girl!”
After trying on almost every pair of shoes, Anne had finally convinced Melanie to get the white Mary Jane’s with a strap. Melanie had to walk up and down in front of the mirrors, looking at her feet before she declared the shoes perfect for the wedding.
Anne glanced at the dresser where her necklace with the two little intertwined silver hearts lay. She had purchased the matching necklaces that same day. She remembered how Melanie had squealed when she’d seen them. “Matching? Like mommy and daughter ones?”
“Yes, like mommy and daughter ones. Don’t tell Daddy about the dresses okay, honey? We have to keep them secret until the wedding.”
“I promise. I can keep the secret. I kept the secret about your presents!” She had beamed as Anne hooked her into the car seat and kissed her on the tip of her nose.
Her gram’s face came to mind again, making her sigh.
“Anne? Dear, are you all right?” Nancy patted her arm.
“Yes, I’m sorry, what did you say?” She hadn’t realized how deep in thought she’d been. “I’m fine. I was just thinking about my gram. I miss her and I wish she could be here today. Did you know she and Kyle stayed friends all these years? It makes me sad. I feel like I missed out on so much of their lives when I moved away to start my own.” Anne knew she was rambling; she always did when she was nervous.
“Anne, you talked to them every day and you’re here now. Yes, I knew Kyle and Elma talked often. He never stopped loving you, and he loves your grandparents. According to him, she was one of the sweetest women God ever graced the earth with. You were blessed to have her. She is with you today, don’t you make any mistake about it.”
Anne nibbled on her bottom lip. “You knew he still talked to them?” She knew these feelings were silly, but she knew so little about his relationship with her gram.
“Yes. I think it was his way of still feeling close to you. I was very upset with him for keeping Melanie a secret. I told him you and your gram would accept her. I’m sorry Melanie will never know her. You didn’t know this, but I always thought what you and Kyle had all those years ago was the real thing. It seems I was correct.” She smiled and touched Anne’s shoulder softly.
If felt strange hearing those things coming from Kyle’s mother. Anne had met her only a couple of times while they were together, and she had never been friendly or warm. “How did you know my grandmother?”
“Kyle told me about her. It wasn’t often, but he would sometimes share. My goodness, when she gave him her recipe for the spaghetti sauce, he practiced it every week until he had it perfect.”
“That was when they were living with you?”
“Yes, before he finished school and moved into his own place. He’s a very independent young man. He’s done a great job with his little girl, don’t you think?”
Anne sat back and crossed her legs, feeling a little of the tension release. “Melanie is a wonderful little girl. He’s done an amazing job.” Sighing with happiness at the thought of Kyle and Melanie again, she turned and smiled at Nancy. “What should I call you now that we’re getting married? I feel I don’t know you very well yet.” Anne gazed at the woman who was going to be her mother-in-law in just a few short hours.
“Oh, you can just call me Nancy, and this is Kyle’s Aunt Kim. I guess I should have introduced you before we started fawning all over you. I’m so excited you’re joining our family. Now, we need to get busy, or you’re not going to be ready to walk down that aisle on time. It just won’t do to have the bride late. Come, sit down so we can get started on your hair and makeup.”
“I can do my own makeup, and I was just going to pull my hair back from my face with these clips I picked up.” She pointed to her dresser as she sat down.
“Nonsense, Kim is a hair dresser, and she’ll do a beautiful job for you. Did Kyle ever tell you when I was young that I was a makeup artist for the local news station? I bet he didn’t. He never was one for talking about family business.”
“Aunt Kim?” Anne looked in the mirror at the unfamiliar lady standing behind her.
“Could you keep my hair simple, please? I don’t want anything elaborate. I don’t feel it would go with my dress. Wait a moment. I’ll get my dress so you can see what I’m saying.” She shot up from the chair and hurried to her room, closing the door behind her. Taking a couple of deep breaths, she took her dress off the hook, put a smile on her face before she opened the door, and hurried out into the dining room. “Here it is.” Anne held up the Tiffany blue, off-the-shoulder dress she’d chosen. It was fitted at the waist with a gathered, tea-length skirt that flowed perfectly over her hips. She had seen it as elegant yet soft. Anne had never wanted the traditional white wedding gown. She found herself holding her breath, waiting for their reaction.
Aunt Kim’s eyes lit up. “Oh, it’s beautiful! I love the color and the style, simple yet elegant. I know the perfect hairstyle to go with it. Look at that, Nancy. Isn’t it the most stunning dress you’ve ever seen?”
“It is stunning. I love it. I know just what to do for your makeup now, too. You will be the most beautiful bride anyone has ever seen, too. Come on now, sweetie. Hang it there for us to enjoy while we work our magic. Wait until you see what Kim did to our sweet, little Melanie. She looks like a fairytale princess with her little ringlets. She went on and on about how you helped her get her dress and shoes. She told Aunt Kim she tried on every pair in the store before she found her perfect shoes. That dress looks so adorable on her.”
Anne sat back and said a prayer as she put herself into their hands; she hoped she wouldn’t look a fright when they were done. Twenty minutes later, Nancy and Kim stepped back and declared her finished. Anne strolled into her bedroom, taking a deep breath before she gazed at her reflection in the mirror. A smile spread over her lips as she admired the way they had transformed her into an elegant, glamorous woman. “Oh my gosh, look at what you two did! I can’t wait to step into my dress.”
“May we come in?” Nancy stood in the doorway beaming, her hands clasped in front of her.
“Please! You can help me slip it on without messing up my hair or makeup.” Anne slipped out of her robe as Nancy and Kim helped her carefully step into her dress.
Kim slid the zipper up and Nancy fixed the straps. “Don’t look yet. Where are your shoes? You need to see the complete look,” Nancy exclaimed.
“They’re on the bed in the box. I won’t peek. I promise. Would you also get my necklace there on the dresser?” Anne giggled at their excitement. Kim was standing in front of her, so she couldn’t see in the mirror. She closed her eyes, wishing for the hundredth time today that her grandmother was standing with her.
“Oh, Melanie has the same one,” Nancy declared, bringing Anne back to the moment. “You bought matching necklaces. No wonder she was so excited when Aunt Kim fastened it on her neck.”
“You look exquisite. Kyle is going to be speechless. You are such a breath of fresh air for this old, stuffy family,” Aunt Kim whispered. “Don’t you tell Nancy I said that, okay?”
Anne smiled and nodded her head. “I won’t,” she whispered back.
“Here you are, slip these on. Oh my, Kim. Look at her. Kyle is going to be speechless.”
Kim and Anne giggled.
“What? He will and you know it,” Nancy declared, placing her hands on her hips.
“He will, Nancy. Don’t get your panties in a bunch. We’re laughing because I just said that exact same thing to Anne.”
“Oh, I didn’t hear you. Now, move so she can see herself.” Nancy waved her arms for Aunt Kim to move
Aunt Kim stepped to the side, and Anne’s breath caught. There, in front of her, stood a stunning, gorgeous woman. The dress complimented her pale skin as her hair pooled around her shoulders, framing her face. Her green eyes sparkled and the makeup was just smoky enough to make her appear elegant. Anne turned her face a little. “What did you do to my lashes?” She was amazed because she had little baby lashes. Now they were voluptuous and full.
“Trade secret, dear. Do you like it?”
“Yes. You’ve both made me look like a fairytale princess. How can I ever thank you?”
“Just make my son the happiest man alive and my granddaughter the happiest little girl alive. That’s all. Oh wait, there is one more thing, maybe another grandchild.”
She hugged both of them, feeling a blush spread over her face. She glanced at the time. “We better get going. I don’t think it would do for the bride to be late to the wedding.”
Tuesday, August 30, 2016
Her personal and professional life at a crossroads New York lawyer Melanie Holister returns home to small town Iowa for the Holidays, where she crosses paths with her high school crush, Kaeden McGrath. Can Kaeden and his bulldog Spike help Melanie find happiness in the hometown she once couldn’t wait to leave?
Home for the Holidays
Melanie Holister left civilization behind as soon as she got past Des Moines, carefully navigating her rented Dodge Charger on the road as a light dusting of snow fell from the sky. It probably wasn’t the best choice of car for winter in Iowa, but if Melanie had to go back to Mill’s River, she at least wanted do it in style. She still couldn’t believe she was returning to her hometown, twelve years after she’d left it behind for Columbia University and what she was sure would be greener pastures.
On the day she left, Melanie vowed she’d never be back. For twelve years, she’d managed to keep her promise, making sure family holidays were spent either at her place in New York City, or her sister’s house in Minneapolis. The latter was a compromise once their parents complained about the long travel to the Big Apple, and Melanie was happy to make it. She loved her family, and she even liked the city some referred to as the Mini-Apple. It was Mill’s River she couldn’t handle.
Yet here she was, headed home, and worse yet, with her proverbial tail between her legs. No boyfriend, and no job. Okay, that wasn’t technically correct. Melanie remained an employee of the prestigious Simmons Kline law firm, but she was just that. An employee. Not a partner, and no longer on the partnership track. For all the future she had at the firm, she might as well be unemployed.
As for the other, Randy had ended their nearly four-year relationship two days after the partnership vote, when he made it and Melanie didn’t. He needn’t have waited so long. Melanie saw the writing on the wall as soon as she’d learned her fate with the law firm. Randy’s wealthy family was all about status, and it would never do for L. Randolph Wentworth III to be in a relationship with someone who would never be worthy of that status. And if Melanie wasn’t good enough to make partner, she wasn’t good enough for Randy.
Truth be told, professional rejection hurt more than the personal one. Although she’d shared some good times with Randy, lately Melanie had begun to think something was missing. She didn’t feel the passion for him that she wanted to feel for the man she would choose to spend her life with. No, she probably wouldn’t miss Randy all that much. But not making partner at Simmons Kline? That one stung. Melanie had wanted to be a lawyer since her earliest childhood dreams, and being told she wasn’t a good enough one to be partner was a bitter pill to swallow.
Melanie slowed her speed as she exited the two-lane highway onto the county road that would take her to her hometown, and soon it appeared in her line of sight. Mill’s River, Population 1309, but that might have been a generous estimate. The population had been more than twice that when Melanie was a young child, but once the Mill’s River schools closed, consolidating with another nearby town, the population dwindled.
Now, as she drove through town, Melanie observed it to be even more downtrodden than when she’d left. There was a convenience store and gas station on the outskirts, and the bank was still there, though the name had changed. The old diner remained, as well as Hap’s Pub, because every small town had to have at least one bar. And there on the corner of Fifth and Main, at the only stoplight in town, stood McGrath’s Dry Goods, as it had for almost seventy years.
The light turned red, and Melanie stopped, turning her head in the direction of the store. Did the McGraths still own it? She assumed so, considering the name hadn’t changed. The door to the store opened, and a dark-haired young man stepped out, carrying packages for an older man, helping him place them in the back of his vehicle.
Oh my gosh, was that Kaeden? It had to be. Melanie would know him by the way he walked, always purposeful and confident. And darned if he wasn’t just as handsome as before, if not more so. After a second look, Melanie concluded Kaeden was, indeed, even sexier than when they’d graduated high school a dozen years ago. And sadly, he was still stuck in Mill’s River.
A horn beeped behind her and Melanie realized the light had changed. “Wow, are you in a hurry, buddy?” she muttered under her breath. “Bite me.” Sheesh. It was Mill’s River, Iowa, not Manhattan. Where did anyone need to be in such a rush? Couldn’t a girl even check out the view?
She stepped on the gas harder than intended, accelerating through the intersection. Yikes. Hopefully the town’s one cop wasn’t lurking nearby. The last thing Melanie needed was a ticket in her first five minutes back in town.
She turned on Elm, the street where she grew up, and pulled to a stop in front of her childhood home. The siding was new, and the lawn immaculate, which came as no surprise. Melanie’s parents had always taken great pride in their property. As she turned off the engine, the front door opened, and her mother came rushing out.
“Melanie! You made it. How are you?” Her mother gave her a hug. “How was the flight?”
“The flight was fine. Both of them,” she said, answering that question first. “And I’m okay, all things considered.” Her personal and professional life might be in shambles, but whatever. Plenty of people had it worse.
“I’m glad you’re here. I’m sorry we couldn’t pick you up at the airport, but you know how your father is about driving in city traffic.” Her mother rolled her eyes, and Melanie stifled a laugh.
Yeah. That Des Moines traffic is unbelievable. “It’s okay, Mom. I got a rental, and the drive
was fine.” She opened the trunk and heaved her suitcase out.
“How long do you plan on staying? You didn’t say when you called and told us you were coming.”
“No, I didn’t,” Melanie said. “To be honest, I’m not sure. At least through Christmas. Maybe New Years.” If I can stand it here that long. “I’m not in any rush to get back to New York. It’s not like I really have a job anymore.”
“What?” Her mother’s eyes widened. “I know you didn’t get the promotion you wanted, but you didn’t tell me they fired you. Oh, Melly...”
She held up a hand. “It’s okay. I didn’t get fired. I still have an associate position, if I want it.” It just didn’t lead anywhere, and Melanie had all but decided she was done at Simmons Kline. “Anyway, I’m here for a few weeks, at least.”
“That’s good. It’s been way too long.” Her mother lead the way up the front step. “I’m making beef stew for dinner. Lots of potatoes, just the way we like it.”
Melanie smiled. “That sounds great. You and Dad can fill me on everything that’s changed in Mill’s River.”
“That won’t be much,” her mother said with a laugh. “Oh, but Judy Barkley is looking for volunteers to help with town Christmas pageant. I told her you’d call her.”
“Mom, seriously...” Melanie sighed. “Why would you do that? I don’t want to run the Christmas pageant.” She just wanted to rest, lick her wounds from the past week, and figure out what to do next.
“You wouldn’t be running it, Melly. Just helping.” Her mother smiled. “Kaeden McGrath helps out every year, just so you know. And you always did like him a lot.”
Yeah, and he was never much interested in me. “Whatever. I’ll think about it, Mom. No promises, though.” Still, she had to admit that spending time with Kaeden didn’t sound too bad at all.
Kaeden heard the tires peel through the intersection as he helped his customer load his purchases into his truck. “Yikes. What was that?” He glanced up just in time to see a black sports car disappear down the street.
“Somebody’s in a hurry, I’d say.”
“Yeah, no kidding.” Kaeden thought he knew every vehicle in Mill’s River, and he didn’t recall seeing one like that before. Probably some college kid thinking it’d be fun to race through a small town. With a little luck, the chief of police would nab him a few blocks down. “Thanks again, Gary.” He closed the car door after loading the last of the bags. “Always appreciate your patronage.”
The old man nodded. “My pleasure, Kaeden. I know things are tough right now, but I grew up here and have shopped at McGrath’s my whole life. That ain’t changing.” He smiled, revealing teeth yellowed from age and tobacco. “Donna always tells me I’m too old to change, anyway.”
Kaeden chuckled. “Maybe so.”
It was almost five o’clock, so Kaeden went back inside the store and locked the register and turned out the lights. He didn’t bother to run the receipts total. There hadn’t been much, anyway. With a Wal-Mart twenty miles away, most people did their shopping there.
Kaeden locked the door behind him and walked the block down to the pub. His high school buddy, Jon Barkley, stood behind the bar, and waved as he walked in.
“Hey, Kaed, how’s it going?”
“It’s going.” He pulled out a stool and sat down. “Glad the day’s over, though.”
Jon laughed. “And mine’s just started.” He selected a glass from underneath the bar. “Your usual?”
Kaeden nodded. His ‘usual’ was an IPA from one of Des Moines’ craft breweries, which, thankfully, Hap’s always had on draft. Kaeden knew that was the result of Jon finally taking over the pub from his old man. “Thanks,” he said, taking a drink from the glass Jon set in front of him. “This hits the spot.” He reached over and grabbed a handful of peanuts from the bowl on the counter. “Anything new around here?” If there was gossip in Mill’s River, the patrons at the bar would’ve surely filled Jon in.
“Yeah. You won’t believe who’s back in town.” Jon leaned forward, resting a hand on the bar. “Melanie Holister.”
“What?” Kaeden let out a dry laugh. “You mean hell froze over after all? Little Miss Hoity Toity decided to bless Mill’s River with her presence again?”
“It seems so.” Jon shrugged. “Don’t know the deets, just heard from one of my three o’clock regulars that works with her dad, said she was coming into town this afternoon.” Another customer came in, and Jon served him, before making his way back to where Kaeden sat. “You should look her up.”
Kaeden took a long drag of his beer, enjoying the hoppy goodness. “And why would I want do that?”
“Because Melanie’s hot, and she always seemed to have a thing for you,” Jon said.
Kaeden couldn’t deny it, but that didn’t mean he planned on going down that road. “Hot, yes, but a little too pretentious for my taste. Besides, doesn’t she live in New York now? Some big shot attorney?” He shook his head. “No way. I doubt she’s here for long, anyway.” After all, she couldn’t get away fast enough a dozen years ago.”
“Yeah, probably not.” Jon refilled the bowl of peanuts. “Next subject. Mom wants to know if you’ll help with the Christmas pageant again this year. You’re in, right?”
Kaeden let out a sigh. He didn’t particularly want to get roped into doing the pageant again, but he didn’t know how to say no, either. Maybe that was his problem. He was too damn nice. No wonder he was still single. Girls seemed to like edgier guys these days. Well, that and everyone wanted to leave Mill’s River. Everyone, that is, except Kaeden. “I suppose. I mean, I do it every year, right?”
Jon grinned. “Yep. That’s why Mom knows she can always count on you.”
Yeah, that’s me. Good old reliable Kaeden. He drained his glass and set it on the counter.
“Want another?” Jon asked.
Kaeden shook his head. “No, thanks. I’ve got to swing by my folks’ house, check on my dad, then get home and let Spike out.” He stood and fished his wallet from his back pocket, and tossed a five on the bar. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Jon.”
“Yeah, see ya, buddy. Same time, same place.”
Kaeden laughed as he headed to the door. That was the thing about Mill’s River. It never changed. So why the hell had someone who claimed to hate the town come back? Well, it didn’t matter. Kaeden would be busy with the store and the pageant. He’d never have to cross paths with Melanie Holister, and that would suit him fine. He didn’t have time for anyone who thought they were too good for Mill’s River.
Michele Shriver is a National and International best-selling author of women’s fiction and contemporary romance. Her books feature flawed-but-likeable characters in real-life settings. She’s not afraid to break the rules, but never stops believing in happily ever after. Michele counts among her favorite things a good glass of wine, a hockey game, and a sweet and sexy book boyfriend, not necessarily in that order.
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Friday, August 19, 2016
Christmas Pets & Kisses 2 is coming October 11th, and I'll be spotlighting the first chapters of the books featured in the set! Today's sneak peek is Kindled, by Jade Kerrion.
Preorder your copy of Christmas pets and Kisses 2 for 99 cents. 12 stories, one low price. All new sweet Christmas romances!
Nicholas Dragov, a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, is the bad boy of ballet. On stage, his grand jeté defies the laws of physics and gravity. Off stage, he lavishes money on fast cars and fast women. His small-town roots are abandoned in the past, until a career-ending injury traps him back home, in the care of the woman who broke his heart.
Marisa Chantilly was Nicholas’s first dance partner, but he alone made it onto the world stage. In the eight years since they have seen each other, she has married, become pregnant, a widow, and a mother. Now, Nicholas is home, his beautiful body broken, and his attitude darker and deeper than a volcanic crater. A massage therapist, she knows how to work with sports injuries, but no amount of training or professionalism can help her endure the man who abandoned her when she needed him most.
Motorcycle headlights rippled through the night, turning the water droplets silver and the field of gravestones ghostly white. Nicholas Dragov swung his leg over the motorcycle. He was reaching for his helmet when motion flickered at the corner of his eye. He turned and scrutinized the graveyard, but he saw nothing out of the ordinary.
He scowled. Of course nothing was out of the ordinary. No other sane person would be out here in this weather, at this time of the night, on Thanksgiving. He shouldn’t have been out here either, not when his parents were at home, working their way through the second round of their Thanksgiving feast.
His glance fell on a particular gravestone framed by fresh flowers. Be seeing you around, buddy.
The distinctive roar of his Harley Davidson engine coming to life cut through the soft patter of rain. With easy expertise, he turned his motorcycle onto the narrow road leading from Westchester Cemetery. He could make it back to his Manhattan apartment in a little over an hour, in time for a good night’s rest and the 8 a.m. master class tomorrow. He had only stretched for two hours in the morning, and his muscles felt tight from not dancing that day. He would pay for it in class tomorrow. If he did not dance for two days, his partner would notice. Three days, and the audience would. Ballet was the least forgiving of the arts, and a host of talented soloists eagerly waited in the wings to claim his position as principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre.
He could not slack.
He never had.
The familiar roar of the Harley’s engine kept him company through winding roads pockmarked by the light of occasional streetlamps. Westchester was no longer home, but he still knew his way around. Eight years earlier, he had turned his back on family and friends and fled to New York City. The eternal bustle of Manhattan kept the loneliness at bay. The punishing and unrelenting schedule of classes, rehearsals, and performances kept him from dwelling on his loss.
He had a new life, and it was a great life. Everyone said so. Obviously—his mouth twisted into an ironic grimace—they must be right.
An image of a whitewashed house tucked in a corner of a small Westchester neighborhood flashed through his mind. The neatly mowed lawn and freshly planted flowerbeds. The brown picket fence and the black Labrador reclined on the front porch, pink tongue lolling in a half-grin. The gabled red-tiled roof and a slim, feminine shadow at the window, looking out at him.
With effort, he wrenched his thoughts away from the memory. His throat tightened. Hallucination. She’s never stood at the window looking out at me. Anyway, it’s all in the past.
The headlights of passing cars whizzed by him. Rain pelted down, but traffic filled the narrow streets. Nothing as mundane as a thunderstorm could dampen the enthusiasm of pre-Black Friday sales. His motorcycle, however, allowed him to cut through the blockade of vehicles lined up to turn in at the mall.
He was on the outskirts of Westchester when something large and black darted across the street. A curse tore from his lips as he swerved to avoid a crash. His motorcycle wheels spun, but failed to grip the road, and the machine crashed to the ground, sliding across the street. Sparks skittered as steel grated against asphalt. Nicholas tumbled from his bike; momentum sent him skidding over the street. White-hot shards of pain tore through his back, burning through the leather of his black motorcycle jacket.
Wheels screeched, and cars honked. Headlights exploded into a blinding glare, and sound merged into a cacophony. His thoughts spun and twisted, gnarled into incomprehensibility by screaming pain—pain that stole his breath and blanked his mind.
Pain that plunged his world into blackness.
A pinprick of light pierced the darkness before expanding into a vague halo. Above it, a face appeared, its features blurry. “Sir? Sir? Can you feel my hand?”
Hand? Where? He hurt. Everywhere.
Movement swirled like a giddy pirouette as huge, blocky shapes gathered around him. The voice that had spoken to him now seemed directed to others. “On my count. Three, two, one.”
The sudden motion wrenched such sharp pain through him that he would have curled into a fetal ball if he could move. The jolt smoothed into a forward motion, and the darkness of the night overhead gave way to the sleek interior of an ambulance.
The scream of the siren sounded distant, but unshakable, like a recurring nightmare. The young man who had spoken to Nicholas squatted by him as the vehicle lurched to a start. “Take it easy; we’ve got you now. We’re on the way to the ER. Your driver’s license has a Manhattan address. Do you have family or friends in Westchester? Anybody you want us to notify?”
Nicholas’s tongue felt like a block of lead, but he rasped out his father’s phone number. The effort sapped the remnants of his strength. Voices and conversations around him melded into a tangle of sounds, and when blackness drew like a veil over his eyes, he let go and let himself fall into a void.
The first thing that penetrated Nicholas’s unconscious haze was the familiar stink of powerful antiseptic cleaners. The bright, unrelenting lights blazing through his closed eyelids were next. They twisted and turned his splitting headache through a psychedelic hell.
He dragged his eyes open and waited until his wavering vision anchored around a young woman in green scrubs. She looked up with a smile. “I’m Dr. Larson. You’re at the Westchester Medical Center ER. How are you feeling?”
His eyes—the only part of him that could move—flicked across the room. Slowly, sensations that weren’t shards of pain dribbled in. The stiff coolness of the sheets against the bare skin of his legs. The absence of pain or of any kind of sensation in his back. He stiffened, alarm widening his eyes.
The doctor must have seen his reaction. “We gave you local anesthesia.”
“My back?” His voice was rougher than sandpaper.
“The orthopedic surgeon came by to evaluate you while you were unconscious. Based on the X-rays, he doesn’t think you’ll need surgery. Luckily, you’ve come through without any broken bones, but the severe muscle tears will take almost as long to heal.”
“In my back?”
She nodded. “There are abrasions on your arms and legs, but they’re minor, relatively speaking. You had a concussion, but your helmet protected you from the worst of the impact.”
“When can I…get out?”
“Not for a while.” Her tone was kind but brisk. “Your parents are filling out the paperwork right now; we’re keeping you overnight. In fact, you’ll likely be here for a few days. Dr. Carter or one of the folks over at orthopedics will come up with a treatment plan for you, which will probably include physical therapy and chiropractor sessions.”
“But I can walk?”
“Eventually, yes, but I’d recommend a wheelchair for a few days, and have someone push you around, or you’ll strain your back muscles further by moving yourself around.”
Can I dance?
The question stuck in his throat, unvoiced.
He didn’t dare ask it.
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Friday, August 12, 2016
Christmas Pets and Kisses 2 is coming, and I'll be spotlighting first chapters from the 12 stories featured in the set. Christmas Pets & kisses 2 will release on October 11th, and is up for preorder now!
A MERRY MOUNTAIN CHRISTMAS EXCERPT
Fran wished they would stop. Stop bringing casseroles. Stop saying stupid things like, “When one door closes another one will open.” Or worse, “Carl is in a better place now.” What did that say about the life Fran had attempted to create for them for thirty-five years—thirty-five years in which she assumed Carl thought he was in the best place possible?
Carl died. Period. Fran lived. Period. Nothing in between existed, and she wished everyone would quit trying to make it better or different. She stood at the kitchen window watching the rain drip down the glass, waiting for the drop to lose its tenuous grip and splatter on the sill and then disappear forever. That’s what happened to Carl when the idling tractor rolled down an incline and crushed him as he pulled on a tree limb to get it out of his way. Splattered right before her eyes as she watched helplessly from the back stoop of the house. And then he disappeared from her life. It’s what happens to everyone in some form. The drops continued to fall, and she turned away from the window.
She hated those thoughts on her bad days, so she pushed them aside. She needed to finish her work before her two guests arrived. Both the baking and the visits from Gracie and Jed always lightened her mood. The two young friends, ages ten and nine respectively, spent two afternoons a week at Fran’s while their parents worked. Both of them had become her adopted grandchildren over the past year, even calling her “Franma,” an endearing term that always brought a smile to her face.
Gracie’s mother Molly had just married Fran’s son Nick, and Jed was the son of one of Nick’s friends. Soon the two kids—her life preservers—would traipse into the house dripping with rain and laughing from their run after the school bus dropped them off at the end of the drive. Gracie and Jed, along with their parents, had been the thing that kept her going when her man lost his life tending to the farm they’d grown together.
The farm was outside of town in a valley surrounded by Johnson Mountain, named after her family by the locals. A creek ran through the back of the property, and it was there that Nick had built his home for Molly and Gracie, just as Carl had built this house for Fran and their children.
Fran worked at the coffee shop a few mornings each week, and she provided all the pastries for the shop every day. Her dark mood lightened even further when she thought of the owner, Cecelia Jones. They’d become very close, even though Cecelia was young enough to be Fran’s daughter, but she never noticed the age difference between them. The night before Cecelia had asked Fran to stand up with her when she married David Bellwood next week. Then the smile turned to a frown when she thought about who else would be at the wedding. What would he think of her after all these years? She pushed a stray lock of blonde—on its way to white— hair away from her eyes. Time to get a cut.
She went to the living room to gaze out on the mountains. Fog covered much of her view, but it moved across the landscape quickly, changing with each gust of wind. The rain had finally stopped. She stepped out to the front porch and saw a dog running up the driveway. At first, she thought it might be her friend Lacy’s dog, Willow. Its size and yipping bark resembled that of the little Shih Tzu. But as it came closer, she realized it had more black on its back and around its eyes. And this little fellow hadn’t been groomed in some time. Its hair was matted and hung over its eyes.
The dog ran up the front steps, running circles around Fran’s ankles, yapping and wagging its tail that stood straight up in the air. She tried to calm the hyperactive little thing by singing a lullaby she always used with Gracie and Jed. The dog slowed down and then sat at her feet as she knelt down to pet its scruffy head and pull long strands of dishwater white hair away from its eyes. She heard the rumble of the truck before she saw it and hoped it meant the owner of this mangy sweetheart had come looking for it. She turned its collar around to see if there was a tag but to no avail. A cherry red Jeep Cherokee pulled into the driveway, but stopped at the end. A man jumped out of the cab, calling for what Fran imagined to be the now quiet beast at her feet. The dog ignored the calls and looked up adoringly at Fran. The man hadn’t yet spotted them on the porch, so she waited. And then, as she watched him holler for “Chester,” she gasped.
Michael Bellwood. She shouldn’t have been surprised because she’d just been thinking of him attending the wedding of his son. She’d been dreading this moment while looking forward to it at the same time ever since she learned David, the publisher of Murphy’s new paper, was his son. She never imagined the meeting would occur on the steps of the home Carl had built for her before they married.
She watched him walk toward the house, still hollering for the dog, who seemed to have decided Fran was his new person. Then Michael finally looked up and saw her standing there. She could tell the same shock of recognition hit him just as it had her a few seconds earlier. She fussed with the hair she recently pushed out of her eye.
“Frannie? Is it really you?”
No one ever called her that except her first love. The first love no one in her life ever knew about. Now he stood before her, still handsome and tall. Her knees began to shake, and she grabbed the railing on the porch to steady herself. Hearing him say the name came as a caress to her heart and opened up a flood of memories gushing toward her as if the TVA had just opened the Hiwassee
“Michael.” One word, that’s all she could manage. Her throat felt constricted. She’d imagined seeing him a million times. After David came to town, she knew it was inevitable, but she never dreamed it would be here in Carl’s home. Even after David and she became friends, she never mentioned that she knew his father. No one knew that they had loved one another at one time.
She’d kept the memories of Michael separate from her life for so long that it jarred her now to see him here in full vivid light, not in her dreams. The years had treated him tenderly and with generosity, reminding her a bit of how George Clooney had aged. She sighed and pointed to her feet.
“Is this Chester?” she asked, trying to keep her voice from quivering.
Michael laughed that same deep guttural laugh he’d had as a teenager that had sent thrills and chills up her spine back then, and as she was suddenly discovering, now.
“Yes, this is Chester, and I’m about to give him away to a good home. Interested?”
“I’ve got a few pets around here. Don’t think I can handle another.” She stared at him as he stood at the base of the porch steps. “Chester here looks as if he’s in need of a good groomer. And maybe some tags, if he runs away often.”
“He’s a rescue dog I picked up in Atlanta last week so I haven’t had a chance to do the things I should.”
“That’s nice.” Fran tried to think of something else to say. “I’ve thought about getting a dog for the house. I have a couple of farm mutts who prefer sleeping outside or in the barn. But ever since my husband died, I’ve thought a pet might keep me company.” Now why had she told him all that?
“I’m sorry to hear about your husband. David mentioned it when he told me all about his new friend, Fran. I knew it was you right away.”
Then she remembered her manners, the one that made her the hostess for many in the area. “How about a cup of coffee? Chester seems to have settled in.”
“Funny, I’ve never seen him this calm. You still have the touch, Frannie.”
She put her hands to her cheeks which started to burn with his comment. She still had the touch. He didn’t need to remind her of how they had touched one another all those years ago. Fervent, stolen, heated touches on the swing at his family’s cabin. Kisses, hot and passionate, and always ending in frustration for both of them when Fran pulled away and said insisted they stop.
“Fran? I said I’d love that cup of coffee.”
She forced herself back into the moment. He was really here. All six-foot-five of him, still handsome although gray sprinkled his hair as if paint had splattered from a brush. His brown eyes, the color of a fine leather, were now edged with the wrinkles of the past thirty-some years since she’d last seen him. He’d kept himself in fine shape. She patted her hair and smoothed down her blouse which she realized was still covered with the apron she’d been wearing when she came out on the porch.
“Of course, come on in. I’ve been baking so things are a mess.”
Michael’s presence in the house she had shared with the other love of her life worried her. It was perfectly fine to ask him inside. She was free to ask anyone to come into the house. She could even have an affair if she wanted. Was it still called an affair if neither of them were married? If they kept it from other people, which she’d have to do, then technically it would be an affair. She was being a silly old woman. Besides, from what David had told her, Michael had plenty of women even though he wasn’t currently married. What was wrong with her, thinking all these stupid things? She was seeing an old friend from nearly forty years ago. She wasn’t embarking on anything clandestine.
“I guess you’ve come back for the wedding next week.” She decided to keep the talk to the present. They didn’t need to stroll down memory lane. Too many bad memories there. Too many wonderful memories, as well.
“I’ve been promising David I’d come up to see what he’s been doing with the cabin after he was able to get it out of the clutches of my ex-wife. And of course, I wanted to see this paper he’s publishing. I didn’t think he was making a wise decision at first.”
“And I’m sure you wanted to meet the woman he’s going to marry.” Michael sounded cold and distant talking about his son, his only child.
“Yes, of course, to meet Cecelia Jones. Do you know her?”
“Very well. I help her out with her coffee shop.” She gestured around the kitchen cluttered with flour and baking equipment. “I bake all the pastries for Aroma Roads. Have you met her yet?”
“We’re having dinner tonight. I guess I get to meet her mother, too.”
“Sandra. You’re in for an interesting evening. Sandra is unpredictable.” Fran didn’t want to say much more. He’d find out in time what the infamous Sandra Jones had to offer. It wasn’t much. Fran hated the way she treated her daughter, again an only child.
“David told me your husband died here on the farm, so I take it that it was unexpected.” Michael still stood in the kitchen as she prepared the coffee.
“Yes. He was trying to get the tractor out to the back field, but a big limb had fallen the night before and blocked the road. So he left it idling while he moved the limb. He hadn’t engaged the brake fully and so when he went to get the limb out of there …” Fran stopped, the words catching in her throat. She hadn’t had to tell many folks what happened, and it sounded so gruesome. She grimaced and felt annoyance growing that Michael had invaded her home and memories.
“It’s okay, Frannie. You don’t need to say anything more. I’m sorry. You were married a long time.”
“Almost thirty-six years.” Tears threatened but she didn’t cry in front of other people so she took a deep breath and continued. She certainly wasn’t going to cry in front of this man. “But he was doing what he loved and he was on his land, something he loved probably more than he loved me.”
“I find that hard to believe, Frannie.” He came toward her then. “I’ve never forgotten you, so I don’t know how any man in his right mind would love a farm more than you. I found out the hard way that not all women are as pure and loving as you.”
She turned back to the counter. How dare he come into her house like this and say these things? He’d been the one to leave all those years ago, without a word, and after he’d asked her to marry him. Instead, she had heard he’d married Inola, a woman she’d hated and who had hated her. When Carl, a boy she’d known all her life, asked her out on a date soon afterwards, she accepted. And that was it. Carl was a good man, who loved her until he died. She had forced herself to forget Michael. But most importantly, she learned to love Carl.
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